Welcome to Liechtenstein!
Here’s a conversation you don’t have every day:
Me: “Good afternoon. We’re here to check in please.”
Nice lady from Liechtenstein: “Certainly. Do you have a booking number?”
Me: “There you go.” (Dutifully hands over booking reference)
Nice lady from Liechtenstein: “Ah yes, here we are. You’re staying with us for 3 nights.”
Me: “That’s correct.”
Nice lady from Liechtenstein: “Excellent. That will be 450 Francs please. And would you like an alpaca with that?”
Me: *BLINK* *BLINK* “Errrrr…, what?”
Nice lady from Liechtenstein: “Would you like to hire an alpaca during your stay? It’s just 30 Francs per day for an alpaca.”
Me: “Errrrr…..” *LOOKS DESPERATELY AT SHANE, ONLY TO FIND HIM NODDING EAGERLY*
Nice lady from Liechtenstein: “We have alpacas here that you can rent if you are gong hiking. They are very useful for carrying your baggage.”
Me: “Errrrr…..” *LOOKS AT SHANE AGAIN PLEADINGLY SEEKING SOME ASSISTANCE, ONLY TO FIND HIM NOT ONLY NODDING, BUT ALSO HOLDING UP 2 FINGERS – AS IF 1 ALPACA WOULDN’T BE ENOUGH!*
Me: “No thank you. We’ll be fine. No alpacas, thank you.”
That, people, is a first. In all our years of travelling we have NEVER been offered an alpaca before. This is now our new standard by which all accommodations shall be judged. Forget spa baths, king sized beds and other such trifles – from now on we want alpacas! This, ladies and gentlemen is Liechtenstein….
The Principality of Liechtenstein is a tiny, land-locked country tucked away between Switzerland and Austria. This German-speaking nation still has a ruling royal family and lies entirely in the Alps and attracts lots of keen snow-seeking tourists in the winter. In fact, two-thirds of its 160 square kilometre land area is mountainous, with a little strip of the Rhine Valley at the bottom. We’re staying in that bit along the Rhine Valley, in the nation’s capital Vaduz, for the next few nights.
The hotel we’re staying in is really a guesthouse, run by a local farming family that (obviously) has alpacas as well as fat, happy cows on their farm next door. It’s a lovely place – very rustic and cosy, with an all-pervasive aroma of cow sh*t wafting around to remind us that we’re in the country. We’re literally 1km from the centre of Vaduz (population 5,206), but surrounded by green fields and farms. It’s actually lovely and the restaurant the family runs on the ground floor offers a range of hearty local fare that we’ll HAVE to try!
We arrived just before lunch, after a short train ride from Zurich to the Swiss border town of Sargans and then a bus ride to Vaduz (there’s no train line into Liechtenstein; there certainly IS a train though, more on that later). We crossed the Swiss/Liechtenstein border (i.e. the River Rhine) with no fuss as both countries are signatories to the Schengen Agreement, which allows you to go in and out of member countries without any immigration checks (you just get checked on your way into the Schengen area for the first time and when you leave). As Aussies we can stay in the Schengen area for 90 days without a Visa, which is great!
It was drizzling when we arrived in Vaduz, so it was with umbrellas in hand that we headed out to find some food and explore this tiny town. After a meal of schnitzel and aerated pork loaf (don’t ask – it was horrendous; the stuff nightmares are made of), we set out to explore Vaduz. There are half a dozen notable buildings in the whole town, including the Liechtenstein National Museum, their National Art Gallery, and the world’s only Post Stamp Museum. These were interesting enough and, more importantly given the rain, dry.
We found out today that Liechtenstein has one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates (1.5%) and a literacy rate of 100%. With a population of just 36,500, this minuscule nation is also one of the wealthiest (on a per capita basis). How’d they get so rich? By being the world’s biggest producer of false teeth; by attracting foreign businesses to base themselves here with very low tax rates (around 12.5% for businesses); and by “tweaking” their laws to make Liechtenstein a very attractive little tax haven for people with lots of money and no desire to pay tax. Even more interestingly, their ruling royal family owns the Liechtenstein LGT Bank, the principality’s biggest bank and asset management fund, and a major employer in the country. This makes ruling Prince Hans Adam von Liechtenstein one of the wealthiest men on Earth (not that you hear much about him). He is also one of the only monarchs left with genuine ruling authority. Liechtenstein’s ruling monarch has absolute power in his kingdom; he can hire and fire governments and veto any constitutional changes he doesn’t approve of. Quite an interesting political system in this day and age. But it seems to work for the Liechtensteiners so who are we to judge?!
Interested in who this elusive banker-prince is we decided to walk up the hill behind Vaduz and check out his abode: Castle Vaduz. It was a pretty steep hike up there (did I mention how mountainous Liechtenstein is?!) and when we arrived we discovered that the royal family doesn’t actually allow tourists into their home. Go figure?! Oh well, it looked very impressive from the outside and the trip up there made for an interesting walk.
Other interesting factoids we learnt today:
- Until the end of WWI, Liechtenstein was closely tied first to the Austrian Empire. It was only after WWI that they formed the close ties with Switzerland that persist today (Liechtenstein does not have its own currency, for example; they use the Swiss Franc).
- The Roman Catholic church has traditionally had a strong role in Liechtenstein and the nation was part of the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution in 1806. So strong is the Roman Catholic ideology here that, until 2005, women faced imprisonment for having an abortion.
- Liechtenstein, in 1984, was the last European country to give women the right to vote.
- This is the world’s eighth smallest nation in terms of land area.
- Liechtenstein only became Liechtenstein in 1719 (as an independent principality of the Holy Roman Empire), and it became fully independent in 1866.
- There are over 400kms of hiking trails throughout the mountains here (now THAT sounds like it will keep us entertained for the next couple of days!)